App for MS Aims to Capture Elusive Signals of Progression

Jennie Smith

September 12, 2020

Investigators in Switzerland are testing an application for smartphones that they hope will elucidate subtle signs of disease progression in multiple sclerosis (MS)—beyond what standard imaging and clinical biomarkers can tell them.

At the Joint European Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis–Americas Committee for Treatment and Research in Multiple Sclerosis (ECTRIMS–ACTRIMS) 2020, this year known as MSVirtual2020, researchers at the University Hospital and University of Basel in Switzerland, presented data on their dreaMS app. The investigators are validating the app in a nonblinded cohort of 30 people with MS in the early to middle stages of progression and 30 controls without MS.

The application comprises a series of active tests measuring movement, fine motor skills, cognition, and vision, as well as questionnaires to assess quality of life, walking ability, and fatigue in people with Expanded Disability Status Scale (EDSS) scores of 6.5 or lower. A wrist device, used concurrently with the app, passively monitors subjects' step count, heart rate, and different measures of activity.

If validated, such smartphone-based "digital biomarkers" will provide clinicians and investigators with a steadier flow of information for assessing MS disease progression and informing clinical decision-making. In June, Ludwig Kappos, MD, the app study's senior researcher, co-authored an analysis of randomized trial data that argued for discarding the standard categories of relapsing and progressive MS in favor of seeing the disease as a continuum, in which progression can and does occur in the absence of relapses.

The digital biomarker work builds on that more unified view of the disease, Dr. Kappos said in an interview.

Outside of disease exacerbations or relapses, "progression can be very difficult to capture, especially in the first stage of the disease because of compensation in the central nervous system," he said. "Our ability to see these very slight changes during a neurological examination is limited even if we do it very thoroughly. But by having these more frequent assessments we may be able to."

Smartphone-gleaned biomarkers may have implications for prognosis and for choice of therapy, Dr. Kappos added. "We expect that these digital biomarkers will be even more sensitive and to be able to recognize before severe deficits are evident who is a candidate for a more intensive treatment and who is not."

At the MSVirtual2020 congress, Dr. Kappos's colleagues at the university Johannes Lorscheider, MD, and Yvonne Naegelin, MD, presented their feasibility and acceptance study currently underway in 60 volunteers. One of the concerns the investigators have had was whether engaged users would remain with the app. "We have designed the tests as little challenges to help keep people interested—we want to make these tests as appealing as possible," Dr. Kappos said.

In this study, the reliability of each test is determined by intra-class correlation and median coefficient of variation. Preliminary reliability testing with healthy controls showed intra-class correlation coefficients of greater than 60% for the digital biomarkers and greater than 80% for at least one in every domain.

Once the best tests are selected and the app is fine-tuned, the group intends to embark on larger studies of the digital biomarkers. The next, planned for 2021, will recruit approximately 400 patients from the Swiss MS cohort, whose 1,000-some MS participants are followed with standardized examination and imaging protocols across healthcare centers.

"This is a very well characterized group of patients who are followed continuously with state-of-the-art neurological examinations, high-end MRI, and blood biomarkers," Dr. Kappos said. "We want to see if we can add value by using digital biomarkers."

The dreaMS app project is an independent investigator-initiated venture in cooperation with a technological partner. The study was supported by the Swiss Innovation Agency. The University Hospital Basel has received research funding for clinical trials from a number of pharmaceutical manufacturers.

SOURCE: Lorscheider J, et al. MSVirtual2020. Abstract P0069.

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